Hans Christian Andersen had barely established himself as a writer of grown-up poetry, travel books, and big portrait-of-the-artist-in-costume novels when he put that reputation at risk with his first collection of Tales. Despite early criticism — “It is not meaningless convention that one does not put words together in print in the same disordered manner as one may do quite acceptably in oral speech” — he stuck to them, stuck in them. They felt right.
As the critic noticed, the tales are defined by their storyteller’s voice: teasing, taunting, clowning, inviting correction and objection, and determined to stay the center of attention. They embody rather than po’facedly portraying The Artist. In a very late, barely narrative, self-pep-talk, he wrote:
You know that people say that one can become invisible if one puts a white stick in one’s mouth. It is true, but it has to be the right stick: the one God has given you as good fortune. […] When father or mother reads aloud, I am there standing in the room, but I have my white stick in my mouth and am invisible.
Storytelling was, Andersen knew, his life — how he made money, how he made acquaintances, the only thing he was loved for — and this you call living? Embedded with doubts and cravings intact, he wrote metafiction at its most profound: as in farthest down, deepest sunk, waving while drowning. One famous story-against-storytelling is ‘The Fir Tree’, a bleaker Madame Bovary; another would be ‘The Shadow’, a murder of the author by the Author Function.
One of the earliest is ‘The Flying Trunk’. Its unnamed hero, improvident and impoverished, is dispatched by an ex-friend via a fairy-tale device, and then seduces a rich and beautiful girl by praising her in fairy-tale images, lying about himself, and promising babies brought by stork. He further advances his fortune by composing and reciting a fairy tale which, like thirty or so of Andersen’s other tales, stages a comedy-of-manners playlet, a battle for social dominance between some downwardly-mobile matches and their kitchen rivals. Within this inner tale, an earthenware pot tells yet another story (we’re now three levels deep), a realistic “everyday story that could have happened to any of us.” That done, the kitchen tale ends with the triumphantly aristocratic death of the matches.
The little match story is as great a success for the tale-teller as ‘The Little Mermaid’ had recently been for Andersen, and he seems set for life. Unfortunately he can’t resist a follow-up performance, splendid in itself but leaving the performer worse off than ever, and for ever after.
In Andersen’s original arrangement, the moral of the tale immediately before ‘The Flying Trunk’ had been that, no matter how clearly morals are communicated, stories chiefly provide a scenario. ‘The Flying Trunk’ then demonstrates that the improving aspect of stories is fraudulent even for storytellers themselves. In cautioning against mistakes, we rehearse them. After we successfully perform the promised fiasco, we remind ourselves to be more careful in the future. And thus we start the next story.
First published in Andersen’s 1838 Eventyr pamphlet. Denmark’s H.C. Andersen Centret provides online access to actor Jean Hersholt’s respectful but stodgy translation here